One of the biggest WWII film projects of this decade isn’t really a war film, but rather an experimental survival story. Strange for a film based on a military operation, but writer-director Christopher Nolan's too clever to argue with. Nolan has been interested in the story of Dunkirk for a long time, but has only now been able to command the budget to match the scope and scale of the story.
In Nolan's own view, Operation Dynamo, the rescue of Britain and its Allies from Dunkirk, has left an indelible mark on our national DNA. Civilians as well as the Royal Navy sailed in to rescue soldiers from Dunkirk, and this fearless heroism is what led to Churchill's famous ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech. Without it, Britain would likely, as early as 1940, have been obliged to capitulate to the enemy. Instead, Britain roused itself in a manner that befits a historical military legend, when the land itself seems to rouse its people to action.
For those who have seen the many trailers, or even the seven minute preview that was screened at some IMAX cinemas before Rogue One and Kong: Skull Island, it is easy to see why Nolan is so interested in this particular episode of history.
From a narrative perspective, the scenario is a ticking time bomb, and within that conceit is both the threat of complete destruction as well as the irrational hope of salvation. Nolan has gone so far as to underscore both the trailer and preview of the film with actual ticking, but how far he’ll stretch it in the film remains to be seen.
Nolan has said that Dunkirk is ‘first and foremost a suspense film.’ So what else has he got up his sleeve to drive that suspense, apart from the ticking clock of death? The plot is three fold, split into land, sea and air, all set with competing time restrictions. On land some soldiers stayed for up to a week stranded on the beach dodging death, on the water events lasted a day, and in the air RAF Spitfires would carry an hour of fuel.
For Nolan then, who is clearly drawn to engaging time narratives, whether that be the fractured narrative of Memento or the time bending physics of Interstellar, this is perfect subject matter. The pieces are clearly in place for another epic feat of powerful filmmaking.